Up Next

The loss of Jose Fernandez

Why the tragic death of the Marlins pitcher cuts so deep and means so much to many in South Florida

It can be hard to untangle the two in sports — greatness and what makes someone great — but it always seemed so clear with Jose Fernandez: He was the single most talented pitcher to ever don a Miami (or Florida) Marlins uniform, one of the most talented players to perform during this generation, still just 24 years old when he died tragically this weekend.

And …

That wasn’t what made him great, not when there was so much else to pick from. What made Fernandez so important and inspiring had less to do with his athletic accomplishments and so much more to do with what he overcame to get here, what he meant to so many people, especially in a pocket of South Florida where desperate Cubans identified with and adored him.

His story has been told but deserves incessant recounting: Fernandez didn’t merely escape oppressed Cuba, he did so at 15 years old. He did so after three previous failed attempts. Three attempts he was lucky to survive. One of those attempts even landed him in a Cuban jail. When he did make it here on his fourth attempt, someone on the boat he was in fell overboard.

Fernandez furiously dove into the water and happened upon a drowning woman he was intent on saving. It could have been anyone. It didn’t matter. Turned out it was his own mother. His transition from that to American teenage life was so difficult that he once admitted his time in a Cuban jail was an easier period of his life.

He could have been hardened by all of this and no one would have maligned him. He could have been brooding and closed off and just a tremendous player without a personality. But he wasn’t. He brought more infectious joy and childlike glee to everything he did than any player in the history of baseball. That may sound hyperbolic — but it’s just Jose.

America loved former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, at least partially, because of his absurd, unending happiness and how it reminded us of playground football. No wonder Fernandez’s similar elation endeared him to so many, but Fernandez represented far more than just greatness and giddiness.

Instead, for Cubans in South Florida, as Dan Le Batard eloquently wrote this weekend, watching Fernandez represented freedom. Fernandez reminded us of our own doting, loving abuelita. He showed that no matter the oppression — two failed defection attempts? Three? Jail? A new country as a teenager? — you could come out the other side with freedom and immense appreciation for life. Fernandez had that appreciation even though he had left his beloved abuela behind in Cuba. She had no access to a television and had to scurry up to her roof just to listen to his games on a transistor radio. Fernandez proved that you could overcome. That you could fly her in and have her watch you pitch for the first time with her own eyes since you were 15. It was beautiful and important. Abuela deserved to win, deserved that moment, and she got it.

Miami didn’t just lose one of its greatest athletes when Fernandez died in a boating accident on Sunday. It lost one of its own, someone who embodied family and the Cuban-American dream. Miami lost some of its ambition and bliss on that toppled boat. We can only thank you, Jose, for providing so many of us with it in the first place.

Ryan Cortes is a staff writer for The Undefeated. Lemon pepper his wings.